Atheists and secular humanists consistently make the claim that religion is the #1 cause of violence and war throughout the history of mankind. One of hatetheism's key cheerleaders, Sam Harris, says in his book The End of Faith that faith and religion are “the most prolific source of violence in our history.”1
While there’s no denying that campaigns such as the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War foundationally rested on religious ideology, it is simply incorrect to assert that religion has been the primary cause of war. Moreover, although there’s also no disagreement that radical Islam was the spirit behind 9/11, it is a fallacy to say that all faiths contribute equally where religiously-motivated violence and warfare are concerned.
An interesting source of truth on the matter is Philip and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars that have been waged over the course of human history. Of those wars, the authors categorize 123 as being religious in nature,2 which is an astonishingly low 6.98% of all wars. However, when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percentage is cut by more than half to 3.23%.
That means that all faiths combined – minus Islam – have caused less than 4% of all of humanity’s wars and violent conflicts. Further, they played no motivating role in the major wars that have resulted in the most loss of life.
Kind of puts a serious dent into Harris’ argument, doesn’t it?
The truth is, non-religious motivations and naturalistic philosophies bear the blame for nearly all of humankind’s wars. Lives lost during religious conflict pales in comparison to those experienced during the regimes who wanted nothing to do with the idea of God – something showcased in R. J. Rummel’s work Lethal Politics and Death by Government:
Non-Religious Dictator Lives Lost
- Joseph Stalin - 42,672,000
- Mao Zedong - 37,828,000
- Adolf Hitler - 20,946,000
- Chiang Kai-shek - 10,214,000
- Vladimir Lenin - 4,017,000
- Hideki Tojo - 3,990,000
- Pol Pot - 2,397,0003
Rummel says: “Almost 170 million men, women and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. The dead could conceivably be nearly 360 million people. It is though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague. And indeed it has, but a plague of Power, not germs.”4
The historical evidence is quite clear: Religion is not the #1 cause of war.
If religion can’t be blamed for most wars and violence, then what is the primary cause? The same thing that triggers all crime, cruelty, loss of life, and other such things. Jesus provides the answer very clearly: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man,” (Mark 7:21–23).
James (naturally) agrees with Christ when he says: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel,” (James 4:1–2).
In the end, the evidence shows that the atheists are quite wrong about the wars they claim to so desperately despise. Sin is the #1 cause of war and violence, not religion, and certainly not Christianity.